Before today Philip Marlowe was Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, and his ultra-masculine, hardboiled take on the character set a high precedent for me. You can’t fault the studios for feeling equally wary in 1944 about casting song and dance man Dick Powell, two years before Bogart took the reins, purely because it’s hard fathoming such an ebullient figure in a dark role. Murder, My Sweet, while not topping the pure star talent of The Big Sleep, is a cynical and sarcastic film noir where Powell proves he can do more than tap his shoes.
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Powell) is hired to find the missing girlfriend of a petty crook. During the course of the investigation he becomes embroiled a scheme involving a missing necklace and a cool femme fatale (Claire Trevor).
“Philip Marlowe…named for a duke.” Adapted from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely – renamed so as not to confuse audiences who would assume it was a frivolous musical – the plot isn’t as nonsensical as The Big Sleep, a mystery so intricate not even Chandler could wrap up all the loose ends. Every thread smoothly progresses like nesting dolls, each element triggering and opening up new pathways towards a grander scheme, without overloading the audience on characters or story elements.
Big lug Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) enlists Marlow to track down his missing girlfriend, Velma Valento. In looking for Velma, Marlow finds a murder which leads him to Claire Trevor’s Helen Grayle and her missing necklace. We open with Marlowe being blinded, proverbially opening our eyes and his own through the flashbacks of the crime; Powell is our eye inside. However, Claire Trevor is the reason Murder, My Sweet is as memorable as it is.
Trevor’s Helen Grayle is a saucy dame, a murderer in mink. Imagine Kay Francis’ character from Trouble in Paradise, a woman with so much disposable income she’d blow thousands on a handbag, and turn her into a villain. Grayle knows Marlowe sees her as a wealthy gold digger with excessive wealth, flaunting an irreplaceable necklace only to have it stolen. That’s simply one part of the tangled web Helen weaves; she is the lynchpin for every major plotline in the film and she does it without “polite drinking.” Dallas in Stagecoach desperately wished to shake off her past. You empathized for her because Trevor’s sensitive portrayal necessitated it. With Helen, even when her true machinations are revealed it’s hard disbelieving her rationalizations have any merit. She suckers the audience as much as Marlowe.
It’s almost unfair pairing a grown-up Anne Shirley against her. Shirley is the nice girl aka “the other one” and although she’s good, she also isn’t anything spectacular. Part of this is the required yin-yang effect; you can’t have a bad girl vying for our hero’s affections without a proper good girl to draw him back. Shirley’s character, Ann, hangs in the shadows and comments on events. There’s little desire for integrating her into the narrative other than the narrative requires her presence.
And what about Dick Powell. I can’t put my finger on why I fail to connect with male leads in musicals; from Frank Sinatra, to Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, I always found a cockiness to their characters. In Powell’s case, his eagerness and naiveté comes off as a pose. The artifice is removed with Powell as Marlowe. He inhabits the skin of the character, tough when required, caustic when required.
Despite some racy material in the source novel, Murder, My Sweet is a straightforward, wonderfully filmed film noir. Dick Powell and Claire Trevor, breaking free of their respective molds, are incredible and work to turn this into a film about people and not personalities. It doesn’t boast the star power of The Big Sleep, but it doesn’t need that with a story and acting as good as it gives.
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